Woody Guthrie Centennial: This Land Is Still His Land

The iconic songwriter's lyrics still resonate in America today, especially when time is taken to listen to the lesser known verses.

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As the world gets ready to mark the centennial of the birth of his iconic father, Arlo Guthrie isn't yet read to describe precisely what Woody Guthrie's music still means to America. "There's more left to tell," he told me last month. "In the next coming 100 years, before we celebrate the 200th birthday, our version of Woody Guthrie and his songs will undergo more and more changes. I'm pretty sure it'll be a favorable future, although there's nothing quite like having been there. For that I remain thankful and inspired."

Surely he is not alone.

Woody Guthrie, born on July 14, 1912 in the Okemah, Oklahoma, remains one of the most revered singers, songwriters and social activists in American history, a man whose gritty songs about the nation's also-rans have been translated into dozens of languages, covered by scores of other famous and talented musicians, and sung alongside a million smoky campfires between mouthfuls of coffee, whiskey or S'mores. And it all starts and ends with his masterwork:

Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" as a pointed response to Irving Berlin's wildly-popular and patriotic "God Bless America," although today it's hard to imagine a country without either. Arlo Guthrie, himself an accomplished and beloved folk singer, diplomatically says today that his father wasn't trying to pick a fight with Berlin but rather wanted to "express and extend the idea (of God Bless America) to folks who were down on their luck or living through hard times."

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez recorded it.

So did Johnny Cash.

It was performed at the Barack Obama's Inauguration by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, who often sings it live in concert. Springsteen, an eager heir to the Guthrie legacy, once called it "about the greatest song ever written about America." But it has become more than that. Today there is an Indian version of the song and a Belgian one, a Chinese edition and a Bahamian one, and it has been turned into both a reggae anthem and a hardcore ode. Check this out:

"I remember playing him the recordings that came to the house from all over the world," Arlo says. "We would play them while we were eating hot dogs. I don't think we understood what was being sung. We only knew that the melodies and the titles were familiar." Guthrie gives credit to Seeger, the indefatigable folk singer who is now himself 93 years old, for turning "This Land" into a national ballad about America's promise and peril, her vast opportunity and her relentless disappointments.

So they play it on street corners with instruments like the accordion and in studios using the Taiwanese yueqin, they sing it from Sweden to New Zealand and in Canada, where I learned it as a kid. Up there, we don't say "from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters." Instead, we say "from Bonavista to Vancouver Island... from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters..." Here's one wonderful example of the Canadian version of the song. Check it out (or should I say: Tiens, jette un oeil):

"If my father ever imagined that any of his songs were considered anthems he never mentioned it to me," Arlo says. "Before Pete would launch into the song onstage, he would always say, 'The worst thing that can happen to a song is to make it official.'" Yet even 70 years after "This Land" came onto the American scene it contains a political message that is hard to miss (it was sung, for example, in New York's Zuccotti Park during the "Occupy" protests there last year).

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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